We often label ourselves in regards to those around us, finding our identity in the relationships to those we know how to define and how to love. I am a proud daughter, sister, and friend and know how to operate within each of these relationships, know how to express my love differently for each person involved. Four years ago, I encountered a new title, or rather an amendment to an old one: sister of a drug addict. There are many things the books and doctors don’t tell you when one of your loved ones suffers from addiction, and even more that would never occur to you to think about. By far the most shocking part of my brother’s addiction was realizing I had to re-learn how to love him, or rather, reconcile the heroin addict in him with the boy I’d grown up idolizing, and love him just the same. There is no handbook that comes with addiction. No manual born by the addict as they admit their problem two weeks before the start of your freshman year. The only way through it is with hearts and eyes wide open.
Finding out your brother is an addict feels like warm rain. It is disorienting, uncomfortable, sticky, and most importantly impossible to protect against. Nothing practical, no raincoat or umbrella, will make it any less painfully and completely drenching. Living each day with the knowledge that your beloved big brother is an addict on the other hand is like those dreams where you’re in a perpetual backwards freefall, out of control and unsure when you will hit the ground.
We used to spell love in my family T-R-U-S-T. We spelled it U-N-A-W-A-R-E. We gave it out freely because it felt infinite, easy, and flowing. We have given unconditional a whole new meaning. We have tested the bounds of glib childhood proclamations of love that stretches to the moon and back. I’m proud to say we can stand by our naive promises. That our familial bond and love is strong enough to withstand the corrosion of a disease that knows no limits of destruction. But we spell our love differently now, we spell it with pain, with drug tests, with fear and trepidation. Our love is thick now, futilely coating us all in something that will not protect us, but is the only weapon we have left.
Learning to love an addict means unlearning everything you knew to be true about love. It means letting go of notions that black and white exist. It means accepting that sometimes really good people do terrible things. That love and hate are not opposites, do not cancel each other out, but in fact can live side by side in your feeling towards a single person.
It means loving them when they cannot love themselves, reminding them they are worthy of love, learning that nothing you can say, nothing you can do, will make them hate themselves more than they already do. It also means accepting that nothing you can say or do will save them or make them change, that it is a decision only they have control of. Learning to love an addict means not being afraid to speak your mind out of fear you will cause them to spiral out of control. Means loving without regard for yourself. Loving incautiously and wholly, opening yourself up to immense hurt. Learning to love an addict means learning to live with pain and sorrow and sadness and most importantly figuring out how to not let these bog you down and eat away at you.
Loving a drug addict means forgiving them each time they slip up and believing in them wholeheartedly each time they start anew. One hour, one day, one month at a time.
A few days before my 21st birthday my brother had a colossal relapse. The news left me feeling both anger and sorrow for him, fear about the uncertainty of the situation, and a deep deep pain for my mom and dad — for the way their faces distorted in a grief and helplessness I imagine only parents can understand. Fueled by a few drinks too many and triggered by the very typical fall through of late night plans, I sat on a sidewalk in Florence sobbing. I had wanted so badly to pull off a flawless 21st celebration in a futile attempt to prove that my brother could not ruin my birthday, that his disease’s dirty fingers could not touch all aspects of my life. But that is a ridiculous notion. Addiction is an all-encompassing monster. To live with the uncertainty and pain it brings is only bearable through an open and honest approach to your feelings. You cannot love your way out of addiction, but you sure as hell cannot hate your way out of it. The night of my 21st birthday I was not crying over failed plans or my brother’s relapse, but rather I was mourning my perceived loss of the boy I thought I had known. Learning to love a drug addict means realizing that just because your idols fall, does not mean you cannot catch them.
*The author’s name has been changed to preserve her family’s privacy.